SINGAPORE: These days, long-time Pulau Ubin resident Ahmad Kassim often sees visitors riding bicycles past his bungalow. Sometimes, they would even stop by for cool refreshments at his drinks stall.
But back in the 1940s, it wasn’t the leisurely sight of day-trippers that greeted him and his family. Instead, there would be Japanese soldiers walking about, all decked out in their uniforms, carrying fearsome swords and bayonets.
It was the time of the Japanese Occupation, and as a 10-year-old child, Ahmad recalled seeing them as they headed to and from their headquarters at Chek Jawa.
“It became quite commonplace, and it was normal, just another day for us,” he said, in Malay.
A 12-HOUR JOURNEY
But the 82-year-old’s experiences growing up was far from what could be considered normal.
In 1942, his family had to flee from their home in a rubber plantation in Johor Bahru after his father was stabbed by invading soldiers – over a Rolex watch.
“One day, the Japanese came, three to four lorries of them, and they took everything in our house. They even demanded for a Rolex timepiece, which we obviously did not have,” he said.
Unsatisfied with the family’s explanation, the soldiers stabbed Ahmad’s father with a bayonet.
Luckily, the wound was not serious. But the family of nine knew it was time to go. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, they took a 12-hour journey from the town of Masai, crossing rivers and going through forests, before taking a sampan to Pulau Ubin.
Ahmad’s fascinating story will be one of many featured at the National Museum of Singapore’s upcoming exhibition titled Witness To War: Remembering 1942.
The show, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, will run for six months beginning Sep 23.
It will feature some rare wartime artefacts as well as stories of survivors, including the children of war hero Lim Bo Seng.
WORKING UNDER THE JAPANESE
But while many tales revolved around those who lived on the mainland, the war didn’t spare those in the outlying islands, too, such as Pulau Ubin.
For Ahmad, who was too young to fully grasp the situation, it had meant a life of eating tapioca and dried fish, and working under the Japanese.
For eight hours a day, he would be planting grass at certain areas, for which he received a kilo of rice and a handful of “banana money”. His father, who harboured resentment at the Japanese, would be forced to cut down wood, that would be turned into charcoal.
Life was tougher for the Chinese residents on the island; they were forced to do hard labour – cutting down trees to build the wooden jetty where the current concrete one now stands.
One of Ahmad’s distinct memories during that time was seeing five or six Japanese war planes on the island. “They were always there and I never knew how they came to be there,” he said.
While he never left the island during the entire Japanese Occupation – he even described the ambiance as relatively peaceful – he would hear of horrific events that took place on the mainland, such as the Sook Ching Massacre at Changi Beach.
He recalled how one man had miraculously survived by feigning death right before the shooting, and managed to run away to Pulau Ubin.
END OF THE WAR
Because they were far away from the city centre, residents on the island were not aware of any official announcement that the war had ended in 1945.
Instead, it was a slow realisation, after noticing that the Japanese troops simply weren’t around anymore. There was also talk of how the soldiers had matter-of-factly just thrown their weapons into the sea.
With the war over, Ahmad and his family decided to stay put – in fact, the house where he and his wife still live in was the same one his father had built during the war, give and take a few renovations.
Today, his children live elsewhere but they continue to visit the elderly couple. Ahmad himself, who at one point was a police volunteer in the island during the 1950s, has since become one of Pulau Ubin’s most respected elderly residents who would regale students or Outward Bound Singapore groups with stories about life on the island.
And while he feels that the younger generation would have a hard time understanding what he went through during the war, Ahmad says he’s more than willing share his tales.
“There are still youths who are interested to hear my story,” he said.